A frantic final lap punctuated by a stunning crash at last weekend's Canadian Track and Field Championships helped North Vancouver's Chris Winter book his ticket to the World Championships in the mad sport of steeplechase.
The 26-year-old Handsworth secondary grad finished second in the 3,000 metre hurdle race held in Moncton, N.B., June 22, becoming one of three Canadians who will compete in the event at the Worlds scheduled for Aug. 10-18 in Moscow.
"That's something I've been shooting for since I was nine years old," said Winter, talking about wearing the Maple Leaf uniform for a World Championship competition.
Coming into the national final the math was fairly simple - four Canadians had already reached the World Championship qualification standard but only three could make the team. That made the race a game of Russian roulette with the fourth-place racer getting the only bullet.
"It was pretty intense," Winter told the North Shore News after returning home to Vancouver. With wet, rainy conditions in Moncton, the race started slowly with the first four laps an easy jog. With the pressure mounting, Winter made his move. It almost cost him his Team Canada dream.
"I went to the front and just started to pick up the pace for the last three laps and tried to get rid of some of the guys so I could ensure my spot," he said. "Coming into the last lap all three of them passed me and so I found myself in fourth place with a lap to go - not the spot I wanted to be in."
With his dream slipping away Winter reminded himself over and over that anything can happen in the last lap of a crazy, roller-derby-like race that features three-foot high hurdles placed around the track, one of which is attached to a water pit. All that's missing is a couple of alligators.
"Steeplechase is a weird event," he admitted. "The pace is a bit slower because you have to clear these hurdles - the first kilometre, first mile seems relatively easy because of the pace. It's slower than anything you do in practice or any other event, but then the last laps get really hard. The last two laps your legs get really heavy and those barriers that are three feet tall start feeling a lot taller than that. The water pits start to be a real grind to get through. It's not easy, but that's the challenge of steeplechase. I love it."
The water pit is the great equalizer in the event. "It's a 12-foot water pit - it's a lot longer than what most people think," he said, adding that he has a very precise way he likes to attack it each lap.
"The biggest thing is getting a vantage point, getting a good look at it. You want to make sure that you can see it with at least 10, 15 m to go and that can be challenging if you're running in a tight pack. You try to pick your point - it's like keeping your eye on the ball in golf. You keep your eye on it the whole way - if you look away for one second you're going to step over it or miss it completely."
When they reach the obstacle runners usually try to land on top of the thick hurdle and jump again - kind of like Super Mario - to clear as much of the water as possible.
"I usually try to come out of the race with just one foot wet," said Winter. "The same foot will land in the water each time and the other foot will try to clear out of it every time."
On the final lap of the national final the water jump made its mark, knocking down one of the racers who had overtaken Winter.
"I basically had to jump right overtop of him - that was a bit weird," he said. "A lot happened in the last lap - it was pretty wild." Winter went on to hunt down another runner over the final 100 m to claim national silver and solidify his spot on Team Canada.
"Stunned," he said of his reaction at the finish line. "It took me a long time to really realize that it happened. This is something I've been looking to do my entire life and for a dream to finally come true - it was weird. It was really strange. I had pictured what it would be like to cross the line and be top three and be going to the worlds but I also pictured a lot what it would be like the other way around. It was strange. Every day I'm just getting more and more excited about what's coming up as we make plans for getting over to Europe and doing some racing before I head over to Moscow."
Winter started competing in multiple events with the NorWesters Track and Field Club when he was nine years old, eventually settling on steeplechase as his specialty. He won two B.C. high school championships before heading to the University of Oregon on a track scholarship. Three years in Guelph, Ont. followed - he now trains with that city's Speed River Track and Field Club - before Winter moved back to Vancouver with girlfriend Rachel Cliff who is also an accomplished runner.
Winter put together an excellent season in 2012, dropping nearly 11 seconds from his personal best, but still fell about four seconds behind the standard needed to qualify for the London Olympics. Making the finals at the Moscow Worlds is his new short-term goal.
"We've always put our sights on not just making the worlds but trying to make the final," he said, adding that he may have some help with fellow Canadian qualifier Alex Genest in the race. Genest, who competed in the London Olympics, finished third at nationals right behind Winter. The two are longtime friends and training partners.
"Crossing the line and having your best friend there beside you is pretty awesome," said Winter. "We do everything together. The relationship we have is awesome for making each other better."
In the long term, Winter's sights are also firmly set on the next Olympic Games - by the time they roll around he'll be 29 and in his prime.
"I'm looking forward to Rio 2016 and making this team is a great step in the right direction," he said.
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